All Disquiet on the Western Front

In an earlier post I jokingly mentioned historian Martin Gilbert, who in addition to his titanic biography of a titan has written often about the Holocaust and the First and Second World Wars. In 2006 he published a book about the Somme, with Verdun one of the two 1916 Golgothas where, after the preliminaries of 1914 and 1915, Western civilization industriously and industrially set about killing itself.

By now even those who know or care to know little about J. R. R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are probably aware that in creating the Dead Marshes through which Frodo, Sam, and Gollum pass he was sharing something of his experiences at the Somme: enduring fantasy crafted from nigh-unendurable reality. In an August 25 article, Gilbert recalls Tolkien sharing more of those experiences not in print but in person:

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Somme were inextricably linked. I learned this forty-four years ago, shortly after I was elected to my first university appointment, at Merton College, Oxford. I was twenty-six years old.
In those days there was a strict seating order at college dinners. The head of the college sat in the centre, the senior fellows on either side of him, and the junior fellows at the far ends of the table. Also at the ends were the Emeritus Fellows, long retired, venerable, sometimes garrulous guardians of the college name. Several of them had served in the First World War. When they discovered a historian, new to his craft, filled with the keenness of a youngster amid his elders, they were happy to talk about those distant days, already more than forty years in the past.
Some enjoyed singing the songs of the trenches, in versions far ruder than those sung today. Tolkien was more reticent, yet when he did open up, full of terrible tales. There was never any boasting. The war’s scars were too many, its reality too grim, to lead to self-glorification, or even to embellishment.
In 1916, the twenty-four-year-old Tolkien was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. On the evening of July 14 — two weeks after the start of the Battle of the Somme — his battalion went into the line. He had never seen action before. What he later called the “animal horror” of the trenches was as yet unknown to him. But he already knew that one of his closest friends, Robert Gilson, had been killed on the first day.

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The Mythical Blackelven

Fantasy master Charles Saunders has a new post on his blog about the African conception of elves in ancient legend. He even includes a short fable he wrote about them for a fan magazine in 1980. Interesting stuff, well worth a read.

And for those who for decades have always yearned to put a face to the creator of such iconic Sword-and-Sorcery characters as Imaro and Dossouye, the sage of Nova Scotia has added a picture to his Autobiography page.

Three Wise Men Bearing Gifts; No Myrrh, Just Frank Sense

With due deference to Scott Smith, David C. Smith is far and away the best Smith to happen to genre fiction since Clark Ashton. His heroic fantasy of the late Seventies and early Eighties was distinguished by a bleak clarity of vision about human beings and the openings our nature creates for pre-human or trans-human Evil. The resulting stories, novellas, and novels were operatic without Bayreuthian kitsch, informed by the Athenian tragedians, the Jacobean revengers, and Smith’s passion for the eternal severities of the most case-hardened pulp fiction.

With his friend sometime sword-and-sorcery writer Joe Bonadonna and Jake Jaquet, the former editor of Dragon magazine, David has symposed up a storm about the state of the subgenre we all spend so much time worrying about, and the resulting conversation, with the trio seated at a table stacked with pulps and paperbacks, is available in six parts at YouTube:

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Howard Gets Philosophical

Roderick T. Long, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University and a self-described Aristotelean/Wittgensteinian, left-libertarian market anarchist, has penned a thoughtful essay on Howard’s Pictish tales. Long sees Howard’s racism and racialism as part of a complex cultural, historical, and artistic dynamic, one potent enough to transcend garden variety prejudice and attain a genuine artistry reminiscent of Kipling. A follow-up post, meanwhile, meditated on Howard and feminism.

There is much within these two posts for Howardists to debate, but agree or disagree they are fine examples of the sort of serious critical writing Howard deserves, writing originating from well outside the incestuous Howardian tribe. Professor Long does Howard’s shade the favor of taking him seriously, judging and criticizing his stories as literature and not mere pulp hackwork, and that is very nice to see.

Larry Fessenden and the Spirits of the Lonely Places

Deep silence fell about the little camp, planted there so audaciously in the jaws of the wilderness. The lake gleamed like a sheet of black glass beneath the stars. The cold air pricked. In the draughts of night that poured their silent tide from the depths of the forest, with messages from distant ridges and from lakes just beginning to freeze, there lay already the faint, bleak odour of coming winter.

Algernon Blackwood, “The Wendigo”

The small screen can deliver big scares; Eric Kripke has been proving that more often than not for two full seasons and a strike-shortened third with Supernatural. That show, in which two brothers drive the unluckiest backroads of the American night while being driven by a family mission that asks too much of them, crashes through The CW’s sugar-and-spice-and-spite like a classic rock power chord. And at least half the episodes of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror were good unclean fun; sixty minutes without commercials can amount to the functional equivalent of a novelette, if not a novella. When Showtime wasn’t interested in a third season, the MOH auteurist anthology approach lived to affright another day as Fear Itself, eight episodes of which aired this summer before NBC switched to scaring us with flexi-dwarf gymnasts instead. As soon as the opening credits of “Skin and Bones,” the episode shown on the night of Thursday, July 31, revealed that the director du semaine was Larry Fessenden, I began hoping for a particular monster with which Fessenden has worked almost as often as did Scorsese with De Niro. . .the rottenest tooth in a knowing primordial grin, the blackness at the core of the rampaging blizzard.

At the start of “Skin and Bones” (written by Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan. who also scripted one of my favorite Masters of Horror episodes, the John Carpenter-directed “Cigarette Burns”), the ranch-owning but city-dwelling Grady Edlund has been missing for 10 wintry days. He returns as the only surviving member of a party that unwisely elected to ride the high country in the teeth of a storm, and even while indoors, bed-ridden and being cared for by his wife, sons, and brother, reeks of . . .externality, of having come back wrong. If Famine rather redundantly put itself on a starvation diet, the result might look like Grady, who is played by Doug Jones, an actor-turned-human-canvas worthy of the best efforts of a Bernie Wrightson or Gahan Wilson, perhaps even a Goya or Bosch; as Larry Fessenden proudly notes of his “Skin and Bones” work “He is the special effect.”

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Never Bored of the Rings

Came across a couple of wickedly funny satires on YouTube, which both use The Lord of the Rings to skewer their targets, filmmakers Michael Moore and George Lucas respectively (and oh so effectively). I give you:


Fellowship 9/11: The beloved, saintly, indefatigable, scrupulously honest redresser of America’s wrongs visits Middle-earth and quickly discovers a sinister plot by corrupt elven, dwarven, and human bureaucrats, zealots, and pampered elites to demonize the poor, peaceful, third-world peoples of Mordor and steal their oil. This film not only inoculates the viewer from ever taking the Man from Flint seriously again, it also (perhaps unintentionally) tars and feathers the many film and book critics who used the appearance of Jackson’s (awful) trilogy to portray Tolkien as a closet cultural supremacist hiding behind a thinly veiled allegory of metrosexual good guys and dreadlocked, Ebonics-braying monsters.

Lord of the Rings by George Lucas: What if the sage of Skywalker Ranch had been the one who tackled the Rings trilogy on the big screen? Using hilariously on-point parodies of actual Star Wars prequel DVD supplement footage, along with animation that eerily captures the real life quirks and ticks of the people involved, the makers of this little gem demonstrate how vacuous and absurd Lucas’ insufferably pompous latter-day pronouncements have been in the face of his abysmal products.

Many such attempts at satire quickly lose steam and degenerate into bad Saturday Night Live sketches, but these two manage to maintain their momentum and become classics.

REH Alive & Well As a Ghost in the Pop Culture Machine (An Occasional Series)

In the article I recently posted surveying Sword-and-Sorcery since the Eighties, it was a particular pleasure to push the ornery-in-the-best-sense, refusing-to-consent-to-consensual-reality work of Matthew Stover as hard as I could. Stover’s latest novel will be throwing elbows on bookstore shelves this fall, and over at his blog he’s been musing about how, while the women who enjoy the adventures of Hari Kaine (an assassin as lethally talented at kingdom-decapitating as Gemmell’s Waylander) really, really enjoy them, a certain post-graduate studies quality makes demands that will at least partially exclude some readers:

The real problem with gathering feminine readership for the Acts of Caine, it seems to me, is that [Heroes Die, Stover’s first Caine novel] depends on an SFF-savvy reader — for it to have full effect, the reader should already be well-versed to the point of exhaustion with the various tropes that the story is twisting into less-familiar shapes. Which seems to be more of a guy thing, overall.

Make sure the woman you lend the book to has already read Conan and Bran Mak Morn, Elric and Hawkmoon and Fafhrd & Gray Mouser and the like, and I’m pretty sure she’ll like Caine.

This is a problem with male readership as well. As one editor at Del Rey told me:

“What stops Caine from being more successful is that he’s only accessible to people who are already hardcore fans. Write something ‘entry-level’ — not necessarily Harry Potter, but even more grown-up entry-level like most of Jonathan Carroll or Neil Gaiman, something where someone who knows nothing about SF and fantasy can enjoy it — and you’re golden.”

Unfortunately for me and my career, I’ve never been able to pull something like that together, outside of Star Wars.

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Miller on Hemingway

Speaking of Ernest Hemingway, whom Steve mentions in his last post, friend of The Cimmerian John J. Miller has a brand new piece on the Master and his fishing habits in The Wall-Street Journal. Miller’s interest is more than professional — he grew up in Michigan and recently vacationed “Up North” in Seney, where the Hemingway stories discussed take place.

Arnie Fenner Responds

Mark is tied up with ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas at the moment, and so won’t be able to answer Gary until early next week. Until then, Arnie Fenner, the man whose introduction started this latest flurry of posts, writes in to clairfy a few things. Here’s Arnie:

Yee-haw, boys! Get a rope! We’ll teach that Fenner fella a…Godfrey Daniels! You guys are talking about me! :-)

Just to be clear, I don’t think I did a hatchet job on REH, definitely didn’t deify Frazetta, and certainly didn’t give de Camp a pass, either, (shoot, Mark’s posting is longer than the intro) so I’m guessing that questioning some of the suppositions about Howard that have appeared in the last decade or so is what has raised everyone’s Irish. We all read the same stuff and can come to different conclusions, particularly when evidence is anecdotal or offered 70 years after the fact. In other words, its a big world and the last time I looked there was room in it for more than one opinion.

No, I don’t think Howard was a “great” writer, but (as I stated) certainly believe he was an exceptional storyteller. That’s not a dismissal or criticism or damning with faint praise at all — at least, it wasn’t intended as such. That he was able to overcome his circumstances and limitations and create work that people are still passionate about decades after his death…says loads. The difficulties a writer — or artist — surmount in order to create a lasting work makes their accomplishment all the more remarkable. But I also pointed out that Howard benefited from — became better at his craft with the guidance of — Farnsworth Wright’s editing. A matter of opinion, I’m sure.

Steve asked: who do I think are great writers? Joseph Conrad, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, to name a few. Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, George MacDonald Fraser, and Robert E. Howard (among others) are great storytellers. There’s more than enough room on my bookshelf for both.

I do agree that Rusty Burke would have written a better intro.

If Mark wants to talk about our differences of opinion sometime over beers, I’d be glad to. He’ll have to buy, of course: after all, I know Frazetta. :-)

As I said awhile back, Leo, I greatly enjoy The Cimmerian. If you’d like a copy of the Conan book, I’ll ask Tim Underwood to send you one. Despite the introduction, it’s actually pretty nice.

Tainted Fruit from the Bitter Tree

Yesterday I was so Pearl Harbored by Mark’s disclosure of the contents of Fenner’s foreword to the new Underwood volume that the blackly comic aspects of the situation were lost on me. For example, the blurbage for the book at the Bud Plant site straight-facedly informs us that Fenner “always has a new take on whatever iconic subject he approaches.” Sure he does, if by “new take” one means wheezy, so-retro-as-to-be-paleo underestimating and overlooking.

Even funnier is the fact that this foreword, so determinedly, effortfully ill-informed, is one bookend to the selected Conan stories, the other being H. P. Lovecraft’s “In Memoriam: Robert E. Howard,” only one of the very best (and least aged) appreciations of Howard’s legacy ever written. As Felix Leiter observes in Diamonds Are Forever, “nothing propinks like propinquity,” and the propinquity in this case does Fenner no favors. Perhaps someone will be moved to argue that it speaks well of the Underwood team that they were open-minded enough to house two such contrasting assessments of REH under the same roof; me, I see editorial incoherence bordering on cognitive dissonance. Are Howard’s Conan stories mere glorified captions for the Frazetta paintings, or are they what Lovecraft suggests they are? Let’s listen: “No author — even in the humblest fields — can truly excel unless he takes his work very seriously; and Mr. Howard did just that, even in cases where he consciously thought he did not.” Yep, to borrow another phrase from “In Memoriam,” it really is a “sorry piece of cosmic irony” that Lovecraft’s X-ray vision should now have to cohabit with Fenner’s myopia.

In the come-on that Underwood Books apparently supplied to Amazon and other vendors, both the Hyborian Age and Middle-earth are mangled, as “the Hyborean Age” and “Middle Earth” respectively. Furthermore, the Hyborian Age is wrongly labeled “an alternate Earth that preceded Tolkien’s Middle Earth.” Big deal, some might mutter; an “e” instead of an “i,” a missing hyphen — so what? Well, I long ago concluded, whether within REHupa or online, that references to writers named “Tolkein” or “Hemmingway” were guarantees that whatever opinions followed could safely be ignored, and my suspicion is that with Underwood Books or anyone else, those who don’t sweat the small stuff don’t get the large stuff.

I see from the Underwood website that they publish the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1980-82 (Volume 6), edited and introduced by none other than Don Herron. Don is rumored to know a little about Robert E. Howard; would it have been so very difficult to solicit his opinion on the Fenner foreword before going to print with it? The website also offers something that I can barely imagine a Herronian reaction to, or that of anyone who cherishes genre classics: War of the Worlds: A Modern Version of the Classic Novel by H. G. Wells. Apparently one Robert Reginald has pried Wells’ classic loose from its 1898 context, vandalism the website justifies as follows: “Yet, despite the book’s stature and the power of its story, its antiquated language and outmoded science have limited its interest for modern readers. This new adaptation remedies that, preserving the authority of Wells’ narrative while modernizing the language.”

Where to begin? “Outmoded science” — has scientific accuracy been what lures readers to the novel since the Twenties at the latest? “Antiquated language” — Dracula came out in 1897; should we modernize Stoker’s language too? Or what about Heart of Darkness from 1899? Conrad was not only an old-timer but a Pole writing in English; we’d better render him accessible to 21st century subliterates right away. No time like the present, or should that be no time but the present? I don’t idly mention Heart of Darkness here, the Conrad and Wells texts are not-so-secret sharers, very much of their turn-of-the-century moment in the way they shift uneasily beneath the White Man’s Burden. But what does that matter when we can have Robert Reginald pre-chewing the vocabulary and retrofitting the references for us? All the while “preserving the authority of Wells’ narrative,” of course, in much the same way as “The Treasure of Tranicos” preserves the authority of Howard’s “The Black Stranger.”

“No one” will watch a black-and-white film these days; better colorize ’em all. “No one” will read “antiquated” prose either; maybe Underwood Books or some other cultural benefactor can step in to modernize the creaky language of “The Shadow Kingdom” round about 2035 or so, or the very stories strung up from — er, collected inBitter Tree in the mid-2040s. Can’t wait.